Growing up in Newark

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

.

Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

.

One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.
Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.
At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”
At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.
In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.
From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”
Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

New Jersey Meadowlands

The New Jersey Meadowlands, nestled between New York City and Newark, is a strange sort of in-between zone. It belongs neither to nature nor to man. The grasslands and birds of nature are abundant. So, too, are the derelict factories and warehouses. The unwanted detritus of civilization is cast off into the Meadowlands, ranging from garbage piles to noxious-smelling industries.
Millions of commuters to and from the suburbs to New York City pass through this region of indeterminate identity. Many look out the windows of passing trains, planes, and cars. Yet few care to observe the lapping tides and bizarre beauty of this unwanted strip of land. These views show various scenes from my daily train ride through the Meadowlands between Newark Broad Street and Hoboken Terminal.

.

My little neighborhood in Downtown Newark

Washington Park in Downtown Newark

.

Newark Model SmallLeft to right: Broad Street Station, Polhemus House, YWCA Building, Newark Museum, Ballantine House,
Second Presbyterian Church, American Insurance Company, Newark Public Library

.

When I examine old pictures of my neighborhood in Newark’s archives, I realize that so much of my city’s built environment has vanished. This trend will continue, as it does in most cities where old buildings outlive their use. If not in the form of my city’s physical destruction, this loss is in the form of my gradual loss of childhood memories. To reconcile this, I built the below model as my own souvenir. This keepsake will forever remind me of my Newark identity.
The landmarks depicted are selected from my neighborhood and include my childhood home. The buildings are drawn with ink and pastel on thick paper, which is then cutout to form a two-dimensional silhouette. The trolleys travel back and forth down the street and are magnetically operated by a crank and hidden string beneath the street. The tracks guide the trains up, down, and into the tunnel. These trolleys are modeled on those that used to exist in Newark, long before my time here.
Perhaps, this models presents a more romanticized and idealized Newark than the city that actually exists.

.

 

.

The Old Essex County Jail

.

The old Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights neighborhood, the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America and the oldest civic structure in the city. Abandoned for over fifty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.
The urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners once pruned and weeded is now overrun with nature. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry that defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.
Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd valuables, cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they wander city streets in search of donations, food, and work. The physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into the no less oppressive prison of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.

.

Related content

  1. Read my January 2021 article in The Newarker magazine.
  2. Read this July 2020 article from Jersey Digs
    about my exhibit and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s proposal to reuse this jail site.
  3. Hear my September 2019 interview about this jail and exhibit from Pod & Market.
  4. Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.
  5. View this artwork as part of my short film from 2016 called Pictures of Newark.

 

.

North Wing (left) and West Wing (right)

West Wing

Warden’s House

.

Ruins of Warden’s House Interior

.

Newark’s Hidden River

.

It is ironic that Newark should ignore the very river it was founded on, the Passaic River. It was the pristine wooded river our city’s founding fathers first saw in 1666. It was our city’s artery to the sea and our industries’ source of wealth. It was the throbbing, flowing heart of our city.
After the automobile drove people to the suburbs and globalization exported jobs abroad, the Passaic was no longer a water highway. It is now this industrial town’s polluted heart. The corporate towers of Newark’s “Renaissance” meet industrial history at the riverbank. The murky waters contain secrets of illegal dumping and toxic pollution that will remain buried for eternity, leaking their oils and toxins down stream. The industrial past clings on, refusing to vanish in forgotten waters. The river of change, the Passaic River, is a place of shifting contrasts, where past meets present.
The river flows on.
View this artwork as part of a short film titled Pictures of Newark

.